During the fight, flight or freeze reaction, certain hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released, speeding the heart rate, slowing digestion, shunting blood flow to major muscle groups, and changing various other autonomic nervous functions, giving the body a burst of energy and strength.
Originally named for its ability to enable us to physically fight or run away when faced with danger, it’s now activated in situations where neither response is appropriate, like in traffic or during a stressful day at work. When the perceived threat is gone, systems are designed to return to normal function via the relaxation response, but in our times of chronic stress, this often doesn’t happen enough, causing damage to the body.
It’s important that we learn to recognise our own responses to stressful situations, and learn to manage them appropriately. The body’s natural response to anxiety will not be helpful to us or the young person we are working with. Common signs of flight, flight or freeze responses include:
- Cool, pale skin: Blood flow to the surface of the body is reduced so that the blood flow to the arms, legs, shoulders, brain, eyes, ears and nose can be increased. Besides getting ready to run and fight, the body is preparing to think quickly and be aware of threats by hearing, seeing and smelling things better. Pulling blood away from the skin also helps decrease bleeding from cuts and scrapes.
- Sweating: Running or wrestling with threats will certainly cause an increase in body heat. To prepare for that, the body starts to sweat as soon as it feels stressed. So not only is our sense of smell heightened, but so is how we smell to others (body odour). In medical terms, this kind of sweating is also known as diaphoresis.
- Dilated pupils: To let more light in and improve sight, the pupils dilate.
- Dry mouth: Gastric juices and saliva production decreases because blood flow to the digestive system is decreased. The body can interrupt digestion of that hamburger until after the threat has been eliminated. Think of it as a priority system: It’s more important to live now than to digest food. This same reaction can also cause an upset stomach.
The science of the Fight or Flight Response - click here for more
The fight-or-flight response, also known as the acute stress response, refers to a psychological reaction that occurs in the presence of something that is terrifying, either mentally or physically.
The fight-or-flight response was first described in the 1920s by American physiologist Walter Cannon. Cannon realised that a chain of rapidly occurring reactions inside the body help mobilise the body’s resources to deal with threatening circumstances.
In response to acute stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous systems stimulates the adrenal glands triggering the release of catecholamines, which include adrenaline and noradrenaline. This results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate.
After the threat is gone, it takes between 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to its pre-arousal levels. Essentially, the response prepares the body to either fight or flee the threat. It is also important to note that the response can be triggered due to both real and imaginary threats.
Walter Bradford Cannon (1915). Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage: An Account of Recent Researches into the Function of Emotional Excitement. Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Cannon, Walter (1932). Wisdom of the Body. United States: W.W. Norton & Company.
Goldstein, D; Kopin, I (2007). “Evolution of Concepts of Stress”. Stress. 10 (2): 109–20.
Carthy et al. (May 2010).“Emotional reactivity and cognitive regulation in anxious children”. Behaviour Research and Therapy. 48 (5): 384–393.
Our brains are wired in a way that means if we are remembering something it is the same as experiencing it again. Take some time to remember an incident where we felt that someone else’s behaviour was challenging or threatening us.
How does it feel to remember the incident? Does remembering produce similar symptoms of fear, anxiety and stress? How does your body feel?
It’s important to explore our own bodies and notice how our emotions and our bodies connect. Think about how you would respond to or recognise what is happening in your body when you are threatened by challenging situations.
When you are ready, start the activity below: